Walking the Tightrope.

Heroes, a fine bunch they are too!

Is it a bird? Is it a plane? Is it sci-fi? No, it’s Heroes!

By Fiona, a contributor to The Stub.

Renowned sci-fi author, Isaac Asimov, who penned The Three Laws of Robotics remarks that “sci-fi is stories on plausible scenarios that could occur if we extrapolate what we know about science”. But how far we should venture into the entirely implausible during such extrapolations is arguable. On one hand, there are stories which push the limits of scientific possibility i.e. scenarios that are highly unlikely but yet are grounded in feasibility. On the other hand, there are stories which leap like headless chickens from a platform they thought was steadied on scientific foundations but in fact is balanced precariously upon a slim pole of randomised scientific buzz words. The former strain of thought has given rise to items such as the Hitchhikers Guide to The Galaxy, Blade Runner, and I Robot. And the latter style of sci-fi, though it hurts to admit it, has brought us Heroes.

I’ll take the edge off my convictions – Heroes as a series should be praised for the fact that it does not blindly go where no man has gone before. It enters our viewing consciousness, in the wake of X-Men and a rake of other comic book hero shows/series/films, and does not offend science anymore than these earlier incarnations. The show revolves around the intersecting lives of characters, each endowed with extraordinary abilities, superhuman powers if you will. So far, so typical. Except that these ‘heroes’ are only just discovering their powers for the first time. Basically we have a show with a plot that reads like “X-Men – Before they were famous”. And this is no bad thing. The series marries sci-fi with soap opera ever so slightly and to great effect. Instead of superheroes that grasp their abilities and sew up their spidey suits without too much stressing, we get a group of people who are suitably freaked out and worried by their powers.The cheerleader, Claire, who can regenerate/heal herself, keeps quiet while attempting to carry on as normal. The man who can fly, Nathan Petrelli, barely acknowledges his ability as his campaign for president takes the front seat. Nikki Sanders doesn’t even notice she can channel the spirit of her dead twin sister, (and her super strength), so wrapped up is she in making ends meet and looking after her son Micah. The only characters who really seem to embrace their abilities are Peter Petrelli and Hiro Nakumura, who can absorb others abilities, and bend the space/time continuum respectively. The key to the success of Heroes lies in how the characters react to their powers; for no one person is the same. To each one the discovery of special abilities means something different: something to be hidden, something to be brushed aside, something to ruin their life, or something to give it the purpose it has been lacking. Tim Kring, creator of the show, knows his audience and knows that for it to be large, it must be varied. Each of us will watch the show and find a character we like best, and follow their story arc. The obvious favourite for a sci-fi nut is the teleporting Hiro, who holds his heroes of comic books and Japanese legend in high regard. He is living the sci-fi fan’s dream of one day actually finding out you too have special powers. That the essential plotline is a winner, goes undisputed. Heroes was the most watched series in Ireland before it actually became available on terrestrial T.V. and it has been outfitted with some of the best cliff-hanger endings seen for a while on any show. But it is when Heroes dips its big toe into scientific theory that the waters become murky.


Much of the ‘science bits’ are left to geneticist Mohinder Suresh to explain both to the characters and inadvertently to us. He tells us that humans with special abilities have suddenly started popping up over the globe as a result of ongoing evolution – the same evolution that led us to from our ape like ancestral form to current stature. The human race has responded to the changing environment i.e. a world that has become more dangerous and overwrought with problems, and allowed some of us to evolve the powers that will help save the rest of us. This seems a rather altruistic view to be bandied about by a geneticist. If anything, those with mutations bestowing such abilities will survive at the cost of those more ‘normal’ humans, eventually becoming the new human race. On the subject of mutant rights I have to agree with the marvellous Magneto – superhumans will crush the lesser mutated, and not for the good of humanity or anything wonderful like that. What we can call humanity is only as transient as evolution will permit. No, those who possess mutations which improve themselves are the cream of the crop, and cream always floats to the top. So mutants will triumph if only for the good of evolution.


But an upbeat message about saving humanity can be forgiven – after all this is a series about heroes. And everybody loves a hero. Cold hard logic belongs in a documentary. Although I think we have to right to expect a light overcoat of logic in our sci-fi – increase the feasibility of the plot and you’ll have a more captivating story. The creators of Heroes try their best to jump on the bandwagon of the HGP (Human Genome Project), but unfortunately keep miscalculating the speed of said wagon and falling off in a silly way, breaking two ribs and twisting their ankles badly. The human genome is hot topic right now and you have to give credit where it’s due for attempting to popularize and distil the complicated essence of it. But I don’t care how excellent a geneticist Chandra Suresh (Mohinder’s equally intelligent dad and the brain behind the concept of evolving superhumans) was: unless he was an undercover top level CIA agent, I doubt he could have managed to “map and track” the superhuman individuals to precise locations on the globe.


I’ve news for you Chandra, the HGP doesn’t have the genomic sequence of everyone on earth. It’s just a composite reference of a human genome sequence generated from sampling and sequencing DNA from a designated no. of volunteers. We are meant to believe that the “heroes” are possessed of a specific and unique genetic marker, which allowed him to find them. Again, while the idea of the marker is possible, there simply isn’t a way to use it to trace individuals unless you already have their sequence on hand. I suppose Chandra could have initially found one superhuman individual, sequenced their DNA, identified the “super” gene marker (ie. the gene sequence that acts like a tag in these individuals), and then travelled around the globe randomly obtaining DNA samples from various individuals and sorting them into the normals and the mutants. However, he would have had to already have some inkling of who to sample and where to look, otherwise it would have been a case of finding the mutant in the haystack. And even if we surmise that he kept an eye on the news for reports of individuals with strange abilities or odd happenings, he would nevertheless have to be a fairly damn charismatic chap to convince people to hand over their DNA. All in all it’s an expensive side project to have on the go when you’re already a professor and colleges rarely enjoy funding madcap scientists to go globetrotting for only vaguely logical reasons. I’m afraid Chandra’s big map with all those pins on it pointing out the superhumans is just a decorative hem of lace hanging off the edge of the Heroes plotline. It dresses the story up a bit but is definitely more fiction than science.


The only mildly successful stab at infusing the story with some genuine science is when Mohinder rambles on about the aforementioned genetic marker which all the “heroes” supposedly possess. This would be a unique sequence of DNA, not present in normal individuals. I’m not sure whether it is this portion of the sequence that is meant to actually be responsible for conveying the powers to the heroes, but whether it is or it isn’t, small problems of logic do crop up. If it isn’t responsible and merely serves as a tag in their genetic code, then the questions arise of a) what sequence is conferring their powers? and b) what does the protein that the gene marker sequence codes for actually do? And if it is the marker sequence that gives them their powers, then how do we explain the Peter Petrelli phenomenon? He can acquire others powers by resequencing his DNA. He would have to reshuffle the sole portion unique to him and his fellow supehumans – rearrange it if you will to mirror theirs and thus exhibit the powers. But then this begs the question, how then can he acquire several powers and use them almost simultaneously? Can he resequence his DNA within minutes, seconds even? I don’t think so. Peter Petrelli only seems like a probable individual, if each superhuman has different sequences conferring their different powers. Then, by the process of Horizontal Gene Transfer (genes and genetic elements being passed horizontally across organisms rather than vertically from one generation to the next) Peter could acquire those sequences which generated the various different abilities. HGT is usually facilitated, however, by mobile genetic elements; elements which are not intrinsic to the genetic material which most of us have learned are located in the chromosomes within the nucleus of the cell. For example, DNA which resides on plasmids, circular DNA elements can be used in genetic engineering to pass copies of certain DNA into designated cells. Certain viruses infect humans and insert their own genetic material into the host DNA – using it as a means to replicate their own (as they lack the ability to replicate independently), and generally leaving some of their own inserted material behind them. Therefore Peter and co., we can argue, could have their special power genes located on mobile elements which then Peter acquires into his own cells, therefore conveying him with the corresponding power. The two problems being 1) he can’t exactly become infected with the other characters and 2) if he acquires the genetic material that codes for their powers, wouldn’t that mean they no longer have their powers? Of course he could just acquire a copy of the material. At the end of all this speculation, there is no getting away from the fact that Mohinder used the word “resequence” to explain how Peter acquire his new abilities. I don’t know of any means to “remember” a gene sequence in one organism, and then resequence ones own DNA to match that sequence, all from just apparently being in the same room as another person. So Peter prompts me to raise the question – is this just too far to extrapolate upon science?


While the tracking concept just showed utter misunderstanding of the HGP or perhaps just utter disregard for it, the idea of Peter Petrelli tries to be true to Asimov’ definition, by pushing the envelope on scientific concepts, going from the factual starting point into the plausibly unfactual. The mistake is in not providing us with enough information. I cannot for the life of me decipher how exactly they wanted us to imagine Peter acquires the others’ abilities. The writers of Heroes aren’t extrapolating on science, they’re bypassing explanation. Good sci-fi should not tell us that something scientifically wonderful has happened somehow. It should attempt to illustrate how they got from (a) fact to (b) the allegedly plausible scenario.

It’s obvious that Heroes is not good sci-fi but it is a good show. Even if it avoids the rules of sci-fi it follows those of successful T.V. writing. It was only occasionally that I wanted to smack it on its metaphorical jaw. Strangely I didn’t mind that the superhumans have genes that allow them powers which defy the laws of physics. But maybe that’s just because I think physics is naff.


Heroes, a fine bunch they are too!




3 thoughts on “Walking the Tightrope.

  1. I’m sorry, I rambled on a bit. I might do a bit of a google to see if I can find anyone who came up for an explanation for how Peter got his powers. if anyone does think of one, please tell me…it’ll drive me nuts. ahem, Heroes is an excellent show..I’d like to reinforce that..don’t not watch it!can’t wait to see what new heroes turn up in next series. what’s your favourite power?I think I’d have to go for regeneration

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